There were certain abbeys, especially in England, that took the greatest care not to clear the country of all trees. It is related of Alexander, the first abbot of Kirkstall, that, forseeing the necessities of the future, he forbade the cutting down of the vast forest he had acquired by divine protection, and preferred to purchase elsewhere the timber he required in erecting his large buildings. The monks of Pipwel in Northampton did not cease to plant trees in their forests and were said to watch over them as a mother over an only child. For their own private necessities they made use of dead, dry wood and reeds.

As a rule, the monks took great care in the cultivation of their land to conform to the laws of climate, soil and locality. In the north they devoted themselves especially to the raising of cattle, and in these countries the greatest privileges that could be given them were woods and the right to allow the swine to wander in them. In other countries they occupied themselves in the cultivation of fruit trees, the improvement of which was their work. It was the celebrated nursery of Chartreuse of Paris that up to the epoch of the Revolution furnished fruit trees to almost the whole of France, and the remembrance of their labors still lives in the name of certain delicious fruits, such as the doyenne and bon chretien pears. The finest orchards and vineyards belonged to the monasteries. All the chronicles speak of the cultivation of Mt. Menzing in the canton of Zug, which produced abundantly wheat and fruits and particularly nuts. The friendly relations existing between the monasteries, the interchange of visits between the monks of the different monasteries, were of great advantage, for foreign plants and fruits were exchanged and cultivated.

The monks were the first to devise tools for gardening. They had calendars in which were set down all that experience had taught them respecting the breeding of cattle, the sowing of land, the harvesting of crops and every kind of plantation. William of Malmesbury boasts of the fertility of the valley of Gloucester in wheat, in fruits and in vineyards.

Henry M. Goodell, “The Influence of the Monks in Agriculture and Christian Civilization” (Sacred Heart Review, 3 December 1910)

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In the twelfth century impenetrable forests still covered the valley of the Jura. A monastery of the order of Premontre cut down the first trees in their forests and attracted there the first colonists. A monastery of the order of Citeaux had but a short time previously restricted within its banks the river Saone, which covered with its overflow the foot of Rodmont. It cleared the soil of the virgin forest where now is situated the little city of Rougemont with its two thousand inhabitants. At great expense and by almost superhuman effort dykes were opposed to the waves of the ocean, and they snatched from the element a soil which the work of man changed afterward into fertile fields. Marshes became arable land and the home of man. The monks loved to acquire these marshes in order to render them amenable to cultivation, and frequently even their monasteries rose out of the bosom of the waters. When it was impossible to drain them or when economy demanded it, they brought straw and laid it down in bundles and upon these bundles earth was placed. They dug out ponds into which they collected the superfluous waters by tiles used to drain the land.

In this way the monastic orders extended the cultivation of the soil from the south of Europe even to the most distant north. They facilitated communication between different points and were the organizers of different kinds of industry. Sweden owes to them the perfection of its race of horses and the beginning of commerce in wheat. On the island of Tuteron, where was formerly located a monastery of the order of Citeaux, plants still grow spontaneously which in the neighborhood one is compelled to cultivate with care. The Abbot William brought the first salad from France into Denmark. If in the eleventh century England could boast of an agriculture more advanced than many other countries, if it presented less forest and heath and more cultivated lands and fat pasturage, it owes it to the zeal of the monks who had found there in early times a hospitable welcome. It was the monks who in Flanders cleared the forests, drained the marshes, rendered fertile the sandy lands, snatched from the sea its most ancient possessions and changed a desert into a blooming garden.

Henry M. Goodell, “The Influence of the Monks in Agriculture and Christian Civilization” (Sacred Heart Review, 3 December 1910)